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I’VE NEVER HAD A NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE and don’t know anyone who has, but according to a poll that’s quoted throughout the NDE literature, at least five percent of Americans have returned from one and told the tale. That may be a small percentage, but it’s a lot of people—given today’s population, over fifteen million. Other estimates are lower, but they’re still huge. And most of these people seem to be writing books.
The current front-runner is the omnipresent Heaven Is for Real, by Todd Burpo “with” Lynn Vincent—and don’t underestimate that “with”: Lynn Vincent has been, among other things, the ghostwriter for Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue, and she knows what she’s doing. (I imagine that after dealing with Palin, dealing with Colton Burpo—who, before he turned four, almost died of a ruptured appendix, went to heaven, and came back with a detailed report—must have been a piece of cake.) Actually, she’s not little Colton’s collaborator, she’s his dad’s: It’s Todd, Colton’s father, who tells the story.
Todd Burpo is the pastor of the Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, Nebraska, population approximately two thousand. He also owns a company that installs garage doors, and is a wrestling coach for junior high and high school students and a volunteer with the Imperial fire department. His wife, Sonja, works as an office manager, has a master’s in library and information science, and is a certified teacher. When Colton, their second child, suffers his burst appendix—his condition has been misdiagnosed—the family undergoes an agonizing period of suspense during the time he’s close to death before making a full recovery. Lynn Vincent jerks every tear in recounting this frightening story—“Daddy! Don’t let them take meeee!”—but has room for touches of humor, too. At a crucial moment: “That night might be the only time in recorded history that eighty people [Todd’s parishioners] gathered and prayed for someone to pass gas!” (“Within an hour, the … prayer was answered!”)
Colton’s remarkable story is really two stories. One is his account of what he sees when, under anesthesia, he looks down from the hospital room ceiling and observes the doctors working on his body, his Mommy praying and talking on the telephone in one room, and his Daddy praying in another. When, days later, he casually mentions this to his father, “Colton’s words rocked me to the core.… How could he have known?” Actually, this kind of out-of-body experience—in which the presumably unconscious person still has the faculties of sight, hearing, and memory—turns out to be a fairly common phenomenon.
The other story is what Colton experienced in heaven while he was being operated on, a story that emerges only four months later when, under Todd’s gentle questioning, Colton’s parents learn that their boy had met “nice” John the Baptist and the angel Gabriel, who’s also nice. And because “a lot of our Catholic friends have asked whether Colton saw Mary, the mother of Jesus,” the answer is yes. “He saw Mary kneeling before the throne of God and at other times, standing beside Jesus. ‘She still loves him like a mom,’” Colton reports. What’s more, Colton sat in Jesus’s lap observing his clothes (white with a purple sash) and his “markers”—Colton’s term for the stigmata. Everyone but Jesus had wings: “Jesus just went up and down like an elevator.”
What most startled the Burpos was Colton’s suddenly saying, “Mommy, I have two sisters.” There’s not only his older sister, Cassie, but “You had a baby die in your tummy, didn’t you?” As Vincent puts it, “At that moment, time stopped in the Burpo household, and Sonja’s eyes grew wide.” Sonja: “Who told you I had a baby die in my tummy?” “She did, Mommy. She said she had died in your tummy.” “Emotions rioted across Sonja’s face.” “It’s okay, Mommy. She’s okay. God adopted her.” “Don’t you mean Jesus adopted her?” “No, Mommy. His Dad did!” Before returning to earth, Colton also witnessed the battle of Armageddon and saw Jesus victorious and Satan defeated and thrown into hell. His entire trip to heaven, he reports, took place in three minutes.
Connor Corum as Colton Burpo in Heaven Is for Real
The tale of Colton Burpo, so slickly told and efficiently exploited, poses an immediate question, of course: Are the Burpos sincere, or is this a fraud? Despite all the commercialization, I believe that they believe; that little Colton said things he thought to be true and that were shaped into this artful narrative by an astute collaborator.
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WITH EIGHT MILLION COPIES SOLD since its publication in 2010, Heaven Is for Real was number one on the trade nonfiction best-seller list for well over a year and recently opened successfully as a movie, starring Greg Kinnear as Todd Burpo. The movie is pretty, pious, and at times plausible—not as an account of a trip to a greeting-card pastel heaven but as an account of parents dealing with their faith, their child, and their bank account. (One of the themes of both the book and the movie is the Burpos’ constant struggle with bills.) The film benefits from restrained performances, Kinnear never seeming embarrassed by what he’s been given to do and the little boy who plays Colton not only an amazing look-alike for the real Colton but simple and unaffected. You believe the actor if not his story.
The most interesting thing about the movie is how Hollywood has modeled it after a familiar genre that has nothing to do with the book: the ordinary good guy who stands up for what he believes against the naysayers. The church elders, who have been close friends and devoted supporters of the Burpos, suddenly, without our being prepared, decide they may have to replace Todd, since all the fuss about Colton is making their church too much of a roadshow attraction. But Todd is allowed to give one last sermon to set things straight, which he proceeds to do in a montage of spoken clichés so confused and banal that it’s almost impossible to follow them. No matter: The genuine all-American guy of high intentions is instantly a hero again. Mr. Deeds has come to town, Mr. Smith has come to Washington—it’s Capracorn at its most virulent. And indeed there’s a final image of Kinnear hugging his family while everyone brims with goodwill that’s a direct steal from the famous shot of Jimmy Stewart at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. What’s odd is that none of this dramatic conflict is in the book. When the chips are down, Hollywood relies on itself, not Revelation.
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NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCES became a subject of wide-ranging public discussion and dispute in 1975, when a doctor named Raymond Moody Jr. published Life After Life—a book that in the subsequent literature on the phenomenon more or less holds the place of the Bible, its authority constantly cited and Moody’s imprimatur constantly sought. Its hold on the reading public is also remarkable: Thirteen million copies have been sold. But considering its sensational effect, the book itself is painstakingly unsensational. It’s a circumspect report on what the young doctor had been hearing from some of his patients—and then from others whom he sought out, more than a thousand in all—about experiences they had when near death. In fact, it was Moody who coined the phrase “near-death experience.”
What his book did was validate the subject. As he wrote in a recent memoir, Paranormal: My Life in Pursuit of the Afterlife, “People no longer had to keep it in the closet or worry about people thinking they were crazy. It gave us legitimate consolation.” But in a revised edition of his Life After Life published in 2001, he writes: “Sadly, the avalanche of books on the subject includes many that, to my personal knowledge, have been fabricated by unscrupulous self-promoters cynically seeking notoriety or financial gain rather than true advancement in knowledge.”
If Raymond Moody is the godfather of the near-death movement, the godmother—or grandmother—was Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who demands attention because of On Death and Dying (1969), her influential book on the five stages of grief. In a later book, On Life After Death, she turns to more speculative matters, speaking with absolute (and unsupported) authority: “What the church tells little children about guardian angels is based on fact. There is proof that every human being, from his birth until his death, is guided by a spirit entity.” Among her other pronouncements: “it is a blessing to have cancer” and “a minimum of 30 percent of our population” have been sexually abused in their childhood.
When Kübler-Ross herself emerged from a self-induced out-of-body experience, she tells us, “my bowel obstruction was healed, and I was literally able to lift a hundred-pound sugar bag from the floor without any discomfort or pain. I was told that I radiated, that I looked twenty years younger.” Why am I not surprised that her early ambition was to be a doctor in India the way Albert Schweitzer was in Africa, and that Mother Teresa “is one of my saints”? But she found even more important work to do than healing. “My real job,” she explains, “is to tell people that death does not exist. It is very important that mankind knows this, for we are at the beginning of a very difficult time. Not only for this country, but for the whole planet earth.”
Copyright © 2018 by Robert Gottlieb